"If we let them in prematurely, and God forbid had a catastrophic event ... that would be serious. There could be loss of life," said Vincent Smith, chief of the Pleasure Ridge Park fire department in southwest Louisville. The fire is burning at the site of a derailment that occurred Monday but took a dangerous turn Wednesday when workers using a blow torch ignited the chemical butadiene from one of the derailed cars.
Officials said the butadiene fire was under control and they would not try to extinguish it until derailed cars around it are removed from the area, a delicate process that could take days.
"We do not want to put the fire out in the butadiene tank until we get everything else away from it," said Dave Goldsmith, a commander with Louisville’s hazmat team. " ... Until then, we’re not going to put that fire out. It’s safer to let it burn as it is right now."
Of particular concern are two cars sitting atop each other containing hydrogen fluoride that are a mere 10 feet from the burning butadiene.
Butadiene, a chemical commonly found in rubber used to make tires, can damage the central nervous system and reproductive system. Hydrogen fluoride is a corrosive chemical that can cause severe respiratory damage.
Three workers using the torch when the chemical ignited had been told the area was safe, officials said. Two remained hospitalized Thursday, one in critical condition.
Officials had said they expected the fire to last no more than two hours. They admitted Thursday they had been given faulty information, but it was unclear where they got that information.
Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, said a hydrogen fluoride release would be "very, very dangerous."
The Paducah & Louisville Railway train derailed near Dixie Highway, a main corridor between Louisville and Fort Knox. Nine of the 13 derailed cars were carrying hazardous chemicals.
The train was traveling from the company’s headquarters in Paducah to its Louisville switching facility, said spokeswoman Bonnie Hackbarth.
P&L Railway opened an outreach center Thursday where people forced from their homes were being reimbursed for lodging, food, lost wages and other expenses. They received additional payments amounting to $100 a day for adults and $50 for children for each day they are displaced.
Art Smith of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday water and air samples continue to show there are no immediate concerns about contamination. The derailment site is near the confluence of the Salt and Ohio rivers.